Perhaps the biggest reminder that FC Cincinnati’s depth woes during the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup are history was the deployment of Allan Cruz at center midfielder for the first time this season.
Before Saturday night’s 3-2 win against the Houston Dynamo at Nippert Stadium, the Costa Rica international had only played as a winger or outside mid for Cincinnati in during MLS play.
While he’s a natural center mid who was forced to play out of position for various reasons (tactics, depth or an abundance of central midfielders), Cruz’s return inside highlighted that not only was he back with Cincinnati, but the Orange and Blue have more depth, too.
Prior to beating Houston, Cruz hadn’t played for Cincinnati since June 1 in a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids. From there, he and three other players left the squad to play in the Gold Cup.
With their departures – in addition to injuries and a brief suspension – Interim Head Coach Yoann Damet was forced to makeshift lineups, with players occasionally playing out of position. That frequently meant the club fielded fewer than 18 available players on matchdays.
But with players returning from international duty – in addition to Fanendo Adi and Leo Bertone from respective health and disciplinary matters – it’s no surprise FC Cincinnati produced their best performance since Damet became the caretaker coach in mid-May.
For Cruz, his reintroduction into the side and debut for Cincinnati as a center mid was impressive, effective and influential in the team’s first result since May 11 against the Montreal Impact.
“We know what Allan can provide us,” Damet said after defeating the Dynamo. “We wanted to defend forward more. I think we have been allowing too much space, give too much time to the opponents. The idea was to change the mindset and be more aggressive defensively. I think Allan brings that mentality, and brings also a performance on the field. I am very pleased with what he showed on the field.”
With FC Cincinnati wanting to defend with a high-press – similar to what General Manager Gerard Nijkamp wants to see from the club moving forward – the home side forced Houston into mistakes.
For Cruz, that meant six tackles, and because he was also higher up the field, he took three shots and created one chance. In possession, he comfortably distributed the ball with a high tempo, finishing with a 77.8% passing accuracy on 36 passes.
“I felt comfortable,” Cruz said, via a translator. “(Center mid) is my natural position. Today, the coach gave me the confidence and I believe I did well.”
Others around Cruz did well, too.
With the Costa Rican tucked inside, Kekuta Manneh could play left wing, while Emmanuel Ledesma occupied the right. Ledesma had two assists in the match, including one to Manneh when Cincinnati’s high press led to a counter-attacking goal in the 29th minute.
When rookie Frankie Amaya picked up a knock and was replaced by Victor Ulloa following halftime, Ulloa played as a No. 10 attacking mid instead of a deeper-lying role that Cruz could occupy. The tactical move paid off when Ulloa scored the game-winning goal in the 61st minute.
These might seem like minor details, but they’re pretty significant in contextualizing how improved FC Cincinnati looked against Houston in comparison to recent weeks.
FCC earning three points is great for confidence, but players executing in their natural positions should be just as encouraging moving forward.
“We improved a lot,” Cruz said. “We created more opportunities. We scored three goals, which was what the team needed. We suffered at the end, but thanks to God, we were able to get all three points.”